Tom Sutcliffe: Not all boredom makes you drowsy

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There's often a moment in a book when your intellectual engagement with the author's argument trips over into something more intimate, a kind of identification which is as dumb – at heart – as finding you share a taste for a certain kind of chocolate. It happened to me the other day when reading Elif Batuman's very entertaining book The Possessed – a kind of memoir of an intellectual infatuation with Russian literature. Frankly everything had been going swimmingly anyway up to page 89. Her opening chapter, an account of helping out as an undergraduate at a Stanford conference of Isaac Babel enthusiasts, is a minor masterpiece of campus comedy – a Lucky Jim that also happens to be real. But on page 89, we really bonded when she referred to her first encounter with Orhan Pamuk's novel The Black Book. "I remember reading this on a bus in Turkey", she writes, "and being deeply, viscerally bored". I liked two things about this. One, that she had the nerve to say it at all – Orhan Pamuk being something of a sacred cow in some circles (he's won the Nobel Prize, after all). And two that I'd been there with her. Not Turkey, I mean, but the state of tedium. There are passages of Orhan Pamuk's prose that have challenged my eyelids in a way only matched by surgical anaesthetic.

I thought of that moment again while reading The Pale King, David Foster Wallace's "posthumous novel" – which might more accurately be titled "a miscellany of the papers from David Foster Wallace's desk" (even his devoted editor acknowledges that there's no way of knowing what order these pieces should come in). And that's because The Pale King, among other things, is a meditation on deep and visceral boredom. At one point it describes the concept for an unwritten play – which is to consist of a scene in which nothing happens, and keeps not happening until every member of the audience has given up in disgust. At which point the "action" will begin, though the writer concedes that he can't think of what the action might be. At times this appears unnervingly close to the strategy of the novel we're reading – which, at one point, includes page after page of abstruse and detailed discussion of arcane restructuring within the lower levels of the American tax bureaucracy.

Wallace has some interesting points to make about boredom – including an astute observation about its qualities as camouflage: "If sensitive issues of governance can be made sufficiently dull and arcane", he writes, "there will be no need for officials to hide or dissemble, because no one not directly involved will pay enough attention to cause trouble." That struck a chord – as did his suggestion that the frantic diversions of contemporary life – "this terror of silence", he calls it – are designed to ensure that we never have enough time to think about the things that are really worrying us. (I seem to remember arguing something similar a couple of months ago, with regard to the difficulties quiet novels have making their voices heard in an increasingly strident culture). Wallace was interesting enough about boredom, in fact, to suggest that we may need a more nuanced taxonomy of dullness.

I wouldn't want to do away with dullness altogether as an insult. Batuman's confession about Pamuk didn't only remind me of my own struggles with his prose. It also triggered a kind of post-traumatic flashback to the time when I was obliged – for professional reasons -- to read all of Ben Okri's The Famished Road, one of the most extravagantly tedious works I've ever encountered, notwithstanding its Booker Prize-winning status (the thought of the judges having to read it twice or perhaps even three times beggars belief. Hope that something might happen was the only thing that kept me ploughing on, so how you turn the pages once hope has gone I have no idea.) But perhaps we need another understanding of boredom too – one that will encapsulate those tricky works that knowingly withhold easy distractions in order to get the reader to a place where something far more interesting can begin to happen. A word for the kind of boredom that doesn't put you to sleep, but wakes you up.

By fearing the worst, I had a splendid evening

I had an excellent time at the latest in the Royal Opera House's Operashots programme the other night – watching Stewart Copeland's musical version of 'The Tell-Tale Heart' and Anne Dudley and Terry Jones's comic fable 'The Doctor's Tale'. But it would be dishonest not to acknowledge that analysis of my pleasure would have revealed quite a high percentage of relief in the mix, along with more respectable ingredients. I went bracing myself for contemporary opera (good for my soul, I fully understand, but not exactly a byword for easy-listening) and then found that there was no real need for the leather strap between the teeth as the treatment was administered. The Copeland turns out to be brilliantly staged (by Jonathan Moore) as a feverish hybrid of silent movie and Victorian melodrama – and has a weirdly propulsive jazzy score – while 'The Doctor's Tale' – a fable about a canine GP, who is struck off by the GMC and then reinstated after protests by his patients – was both funny and touching. Within a minute or two, in both cases the muscles relaxed – and the contrast with the unnecessary tension gave an extra positive spin to an evening that would have been enjoyable in any case. This quite often happens in our encounters with art – but all too often occurs the other way round, when anticipatory hype lulls you into a false sense of security. Fear and wariness are much better condiments.

The Macedonians' silver lining

To Oxford the other day to see the Ashmolean's very evocative display of treasures from Greek excavations in what was Aegae, the capital of the Macedonian empire. The selling point for the show is the fact that Oxford is, for the time being, the only place you can see some of them, since the on-site museum doesn't have room. I found myself preoccupied by an odd contrast between precious metals. The star of the show for most, I'd guess, will be the gold myrtle wreath of Queen Medea, an astonishingly delicate piece of jewellery which is virtually intact – as is a similar oak-leaf wreath belonging to Philip II. Because they're solid gold you expect to find them uncorrupted. It is proof they're real. But the show also contains silverware in a remarkable state of preservation. Looking at the pieces, a thought occurred: "Either these were made yesterday, or they've been given a worryingly energetic scouring". In fact, the silver came out of the tomb lustrous and has only been gently cleaned. But, knowing how silver tarnishes, I couldn't help but feel the gleam undermined their authenticity. I wanted patina and couldn't see it. I don't doubt they are real, but it would be interesting to know how the Macedonians made them so they didn't need polishing for more than 2,000 years.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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